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10 false ideas on education in Finland

Rosa María Torres
Less is more . e-volv

1. FALSE: Finland has the highest investment in education

Finland allocates 11.2% of its public budget to education, from early childhood to higher education, including the latter (the Ministry of Education and Culture deals with the whole system). 

The average in OECD countries is 12%. Many countries with poorer learning outcomes and not providing free education have higher education budgets (for example Switzerland, Sweden, Germany, the United States, the Netherlands, or the UK).

Education is free, including transportation and a daily school meal for all students. (Textbooks are not free in higher secondary education). 

- OECD, Education at a Glance 2015 (2012 data).

2. FALSE: The secret is more time dedicated to school 

Finland is the OECD country that dedicates less time to school education.
Schooling starts at age 7. 180 days a year, less school hours, less homework. 

A teacher teaches an average of 600 hours a year, 4 classes a day or less. (A school teacher in the United States teaches 1.080 hours a year, 5 or 6 classes a day). 

The formula is less class time, more and longer recesses (75 minutes in total).

Finland is the OECD country with the least homework. Students have more free time to play, to engage in physical activity, to learn out of school, to be with family and friends.  

3. FALSE: Intensive use of technology for teaching and learning in schools

The Finnish school system trusts teachers' skills and expertise. Finland's education strength is pedagogy, not technology. ICTs are at the service of pedagogy rather the other way round. 

Finland is back from some illusions created by technologies over the past decades. It ratifies the importance of handwriting, of reading on paper, of not relying solely on keyboards and screens. 

ICTs are not confined to laboratories any more. They are incorporated to classrooms and other learning spaces within the schools.

4. FALSE: Finland has great education infrastructure

A few modern and innovative school buildings have been built over the past few years. But most school buildings have been operating for many years, and are well maintained.

The key is the organization and use of space, and the creation of a stimulating and informal learning environment. Everything aims at generating collaboration, group work, peer learning, in and out of classrooms.

Class groups are small (max. 20 students per class) so as to facilitate interaction and personalized attention. This is considered especially important in the first two grades.

5. FALSE: Teacher candidates are selected from "best students"

"The best" are not necessarily those with the best grades or the most titles.

Several aspects are valued and observed in the selection of "future best teachers": motivation, attitude towards lifelong learning, reading habits, critical thinking, creativity, artistic and communication skills, knowledge of languages, values such as empathy, perseverance and social commitment. 
6. FALSE: Finland has the highest teacher salaries

Teacher salaries in Finland are below the OECD average.

The key behind teachers' excellent performance is not the economic incentive. There are other factors explaining their motivation and professionalism.

Finnish teachers are carefully selected, trained with high quality standards, and socially respected. They enjoy professional autonomy and take decisions every day in their work. The education administration, parents and the whole society trust them. They feel important and respected for what they do.

7. FALSE: Teachers are not unionized

95% of Finnish teachers are unionized.

The Finnish teacher union (OAJ) is strong and a main actor in education and education reform in the country. Its 120.400 members come from all levels of the education system, from early childhood education to higher education. 

8. FALSE: Finland applies standardized tests 

Finland is not a fan of standardized tests. It does not believe in them it avoids them. It applies one single standardized test to students after they are 16 of years of age. 

The main concern of the school system is learning, not grading or testing. Less time devoted to testing, more time devoted to teaching and learning. 

There is no teacher evaluation system in place. No standardized tests are applied to teachers. 

9. FALSE: Finland sets and publishes rankings 

Finland encourages collaboration, not competition, between learners, teachers and schools. Consequently, it avoids ranking them

It does not publish learning outcomes. 

Finland's objective has never been to be the best in the world, not even in Europe. The objective remains being the best education system for its own students. 

10. FALSE: Finland is satisfied with its education system and its learning outcomes  

Despite its top performance in PISA and its many top economic, social and cultural indicators, Finland is dissatisfied, always looking for ways to make education more meaningful and pleasurable for students. 

The country is currently engaged in a holistic and profound basic education curriculum reform. It is also rethinking the role of ICTs in teaching and learning, and revisiting early childhood education. 

Related texts in this blog 
» Rosa María Torres, FINLANDIA
» Rosa María Torres, Sobre la educación en Finlandia | On education in Finland

One child, one teacher, one book and one pen

Rosa María Torres


One child.

One teacher.

The child first.  

The teacher second.

With what?

One book.

One pen.

So that we can read. 

So that we can write.



What for?

To change the world. 

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Children's right to basic education

Sustainable Development Goals: Goal 4: Education

At the UN Sustainable Development Summit (New York, 25-27 Sep. 2015) a new development agenda was adopted for 2015-2030. From 8 Millennium Development Goals and 21 targets - some of which were not met (see MDG 2015 Report) - we moved towards 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and 169 targets. 
Over 25 years educational aspirations reflected in global goals moved from basic education for children, youth and adults - Education for All (EFA) 1990-2000-2015 - to primary education for all children (completing four years of primary school) - Goal 2 of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) 2000-2015 - to access to quality education at all levels, including higher education, and lifelong learning opportunities for all - Goal 4 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 2015-2030. It is considered that the SDGs introduce a paradigm shift, described as "Moving from quantity to quality". (See EFA, MDG and SDG education goals in this table).

In fact, in September 2016, one year after the SDGs were approved, UNESCO announced that the new global education goals will not be met in 2030 (Global Education Monitoring Report 2016). It said that if current trends persist, universal primary education will be achieved in 2042, universal lower secondary education in 2059 and universal higher secondary education in 2084. 

I analyze here Goal 4 - "Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning" - and its 10 targets. The targets include all levels of education, technical and vocational skills, youth and adult literacy, gender equality, education for sustainable development, scholarships, education facilities, and teacher training. They are centered around formal education. The overall aspiration is expanded schooling, 12 years (primary and secondary education) considered the minimum this time. Free and quality are key additions; the word quality is reiterated in every target. Again, as in EFA, references to early childhood and adulthood are particularly weak. Lifelong learning is mentioned as an addition to inclusive and quality education for all, not as the new education paradigm for the 21st century proposed by UNESCO.

Is it realistic to expect that ambitious education goals will be achieved by 2030 when much more modest goals were not achieved in 25 years of Education for All and 15 years of Millennium Development Goals?

After reading Goal 4 and its targets one wonders what are the lessons learned over the past 25 years of global goals and international initiatives for education.

Money is considered the main obstacle; however, as we know, education is one of those fields where how money is spent is more important than how much it is spent, and where money alone does not guarantee good policies or rapid, sustainable, change.

We find also the usual translation problems (English-Spanish).

Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning
Just one-third of countries have achieved all the measurable Education for All (EFA) goals. - See more at:

Main findings

  • Just one-third of countries have achieved all the measurable Education for All (EFA) goals.
  • In 2012, 121m children and adolescents were still out of school, down from 204m in 1999.
  • Half of countries have now achieved Universal Primary Enrolment and 10% more are close.
  • Poorest children are five times more likely not to complete primary school than richest.
- See more at:

» Lifelong learning (LLL) has been conceptualized by UNESCO as learning that takes place throughout life, from birth to death, in and out of the school system. It has also been proposed by UNESCO as a new paradigm for education in the 21st century. However, LLL is mentioned here as an addition to inclusive and quality education for all, and as separate from education. In fact, LLL should be considered an embracing concept that includes all targets of Goal 4. 
Inclusive and quality remain strange and confusing terms for the majority of the population worldwide. Their interpretations and uses differ considerably even within the specialized education community. The same occurs with lifelong learning, a concept not fully understood and incorporated by the education community so far. All this must be kept in mind when communicating the Quality Education Goal in the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals.

■ By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and Goal-4 effective learning outcomes.

» This target is the first one in the list and is the most important one within Goal 4. Most financial efforts will probably be devoted to this target.

» It is important to remember that:
- Education for All (1990-2015) adopted six basic education goals, aimed at "meeting basic learning needs" of children, youth and adults, in and out of school. According to the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED), basic education comprises primary education and lower secondary education. The six goals were not me in 25 years, and remained as "unfinished business".
- The Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015) proposed Goal 2: Achieve universal primary education ('primary education' understood as 4 years of schooling; no mention of free or quality). In 15 years, this modest goal was not met.

» In the final phase of EFA and of the MDGs a "global learning crisis" was acknowledged: after four years of schooling millions of children worldwide are not learning to read, write and do basic math.

» With this experience in mind, is it realistic to think that "free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education" with "effective learning outcomes" are attainable in the next 15 years? In the push for 'universal secondary education', won't we repeat the same - and worse - problems than those faced in the push for 'universal primary education'?.

girls and boys" may not be a realistic goal for many countries.

Not all is about money. Latin America's high school drop out should be taken into account: nearly half of young Latin Americans leave high school, mainly because of lack of interest and lack of purpose. In a region with historical high primary education enrollment rates, secondary education is viewed today as a major bottleneck.

In today's world children are not the only ones attending primary and secondary education; in many countries, completion of primary and secondary education is being offered to young people and adults (second chance education programmes). Targets and indicators related to youth and adults (see below) might also incorporate primary and secondary education.

■ By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education.

Early childhood development, care and pre-primary education are important not to prepare children for primary education, but to better prepare them for learning (in and out of school) and for life. This debate has been going on for decades. For some reason, the SDGs decided to adopt the instrumental, school-oriented approach to early childhood development and education. We can only hope that the indicators do not reinforce the 'school preparedness' trend.

■ By 2030, ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university.

"Affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education" is hard to find in most countries around the world. Can you ensure access to something that, in many cases, will take much longer than 15 years to be in place? Again, all will have to be translated into a more realistic quantitative goals depending on each country.

■ By 2030, substantially increase the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills, for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship.

See comments to previous target.

It is difficult to agree on the "relevant skills for employment, decent jobs and enterpreneurship" that can be considered universal and useful in any context. Certainly, and given the weaknesses of the school system and of basic education, some of them will have to do not with "technical and professional skills" but with basic learning needs such as oral expression, and reading and writing properly and autonomously.

■ By 2030, eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and children in vulnerable situations.

 » Again: women, indigenous peoples, and people with disabilities are put together, in the "vulnerable" category. However, their vulnerabilities - and the ways they are discriminated - are very different and specific.

It is time to consider equality, not juts parity - access and enrollment. Disparities are expressed in many areas: retention, repetition, roles played, expectations, learning outcomes, study and career options, etc.

» To be considered: in Latin America, education discrimination against indigenous peoples is stronger and more systematic than discrimination against girls/women. In other words: racism is stronger than machismo.

■ By 2030, ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy.

» Youth and adult literacy is historically the least successful global education goal and remains a critical challenge worldwide (781 million illiterates, the usual two thirds represented by women). The challenge includes sound policy and goal formulation. "Achieving literacy and numeracy" remains a highly ambiguous notion. When can we say that someone has achieved literacy and numeracy? (It may be useful to describe clear competencies within this target).

"Substantial proportion of adults" needs to be translated into a percentage that makes the goal not only achievable but successful.

■ By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.

Clearly, promoting sustainable development is not only about knowledge and skills. The most developed, educated and informed countries in the world are the ones that contaminate the most. On the other hand, indigenous peoples preserve the planet.

The description of knowledge and skills considered necessary is vague. In any case, acquiring them requires not only education but also information and communication efforts; not only the school system but also indigenous knowledge and practice, non-formal learning and informal learning at home, in the community, through the media and the internet, in the workplace, etc.

■ Build and upgrade education facilities that are child, disability and gender sensitive and provide safe, nonviolent, inclusive and effective learning environments for all.

» It is important to highlight the need to differentiate and respond to specific realities and needs, rather than to homogenize. Need to add mention of facilities that are sensitive to different cultures (there are various cultures within a country - countries that are multiethnic and pluricultural, and as a result of migration processes). This is not covered by child, disability and gender sensitivity.

■ By 2020, substantially expand globally the number of scholarships available to developing countries, in particular least developed countries, small island developing States and African countries, for enrollment in higher education, including vocational training and information and communications technology, technical, engineering and scientific programmes, in developed countries and other developing countries.

South-South cooperation and exchange are essential. So-called 'developing countries' are highly heterogeneous. Many such countries are in a condition to offer scholarships and exchange programmes that may be more relevant to other 'developing countries' than those offered by 'developed' ones.

■ By 2030, substantially increase the supply of qualified teachers, including through international cooperation for teacher training in developing countries, especially least developed countries and small island developing states.

It is revealing that the target devoted to teachers appears last in the list (following scholarships, education facilities, etc.).

It is fundamental to deepen the understanding and the debate - globally and in each national context - on the issue of teachers, teacher education and teacher quality. Qualified teachers and quality teachers may not necessarily be the same thing. Training is only one factor of quality teaching. Poor teacher training is very common and ineffective. Becoming a good teacher depends on character, vocation, school background, appreciation for learning, for reading and for experimenting, quality of teacher education and of teachers' working and learning conditions. There are many old conceptions and misconceptions on what good teacher and good teaching are. 

» The teacher is a key factor in the quality of school education, but not the only one. The whole responsibility cannot be placed on teachers. All evaluations of student learning in school reiterate the critical role of poverty and of overall families' socio-economic conditions. Improving the learning conditions of the poor implies improving them both in and out of school (health, nutrition, well-being, lack of fear, affection, care, play, sleep, etc.).

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Sobre aprendizaje de jóvenes y adultos | On youth and adult learning
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Calidad educativa: ¿infraestructura, tecnologías y docentes?
Education First | La educación primero 
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International Initiatives for Education | Iniciativas internacionales para la educación
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Formal, non-formal and informal learning

Global learning crisis?

Texto en español: ¿Crisis global de aprendizaje?

International organizations are speaking of a global learning crisis. Is it really a global learning crisis?. Speaking of a "learning crisis" has the risk - once again - of blaming the victim, not acknowledging the teaching crisis behind such learning crisis, and ignoring the overall responsibility of the school system, historically unable to respond to learners' and learning needs.

The fact that the term learning crisis becomes very attractive for the modern and powerful evaluation and testing industry is also a matter of concern. We discuss here also the need to acknowledge teacher learning and not only student learning; teachers' learning is also in crisis. Aldo, it is clear that the so-called "learning crisis" affects not only poor countries but also rich ones, and is thus really global.

Children are not learning in school

A major 'discovery' came up from the extensive international meetings and deliberations stimulated by the 2015 deadline of the Education for All - EFA goals (1990-2000-2015) and the Millennium Development Goals - MDG (2000-2015): millions of children are not learning the basics in school. Of the 650 million children going to school worldwide, 250 million are not learning to read, write and calculate, even after 3 or more years of schooling.
In 2011, of 41 countries surveyed:
- after 4 years or less in school: 1 in 4 children are unable to read all or part of a sentence
- after 5-6 years in school: 1 in 3 children are unable to read all or part of a sentence
- 61% of children who cannot read are girls
- 25% of children in low and middle income countries cannot read.

Illustration: Claudius Ceccon (Brazil)

The term illiteracy applies not only to adults but to children as well. Illiteracy is linked to lack of access to school, but also to access to poor quality and insufficient education, and to lack of opportunities for reading and writing. The combination of poverty and poor teaching, poor learning and poor reading conditions reinforces the worst predictions for the poor.

In 'developing countries' we know this for a long time. Completing four years of school, prescribed by the MDGs as equivalent to 'primary education', is clearly insufficient to make a child literate - able to read, write and calculate in real life situations - especially if that child comes from deprived socio-economic contexts and subordinate languages and cultures.

The same is true with adult literacy: the usual quick literacy programmes - more concerned with statistics than with actual learning - leave people half way, with weak and volatile reading and writing skills. A short 'post-literacy' programme does not add much. Just like children, young people and adults need a solid basic education, and exposure to reading and writing environments and acts.

Not being able to read and write is one of the main causes of school repetition in the early years of schooling worldwide. There is no scientific or even rational reason behind the idea that children must learn to read and write in one or two years. And yet, this is often mandated by national education policies and authorities. 'Failure' is typically attributed to the students rather than to the system and to those in charge of defining policies and curricula.

Few countries give students and teachers enough time to make a joyful and meaningful literacy process. Brazil - well known for its high repetition rates and its long-entrenched 'school repetition culture' - groups together the first three years of primary education, called 'literacy cycle'.

We, specialists, have been saying for decades that literacy education must be seen as an objective for at least the whole of primary education, if not of basic education (primary and lower secondary education, according to ISCED). We have also been saying that, given the importance and complexity of the task, groups in the early grades must be rather small and the best teachers should be assigned to such grades (Finland does it), challenging the logic and usual practice of school systems worldwide.

The acknowledgement by the international community of the school 'global learning crisis' comes a bit late, when the deadline for both MDG and EFA goals is coming to an end, after 15 and 25 years respectively. Hopefully such recognition will lead to world awareness and will help reshape the post-2015 education agenda worldwide.

Learning was one of the six Education for All goals approved in Jomtien, Thailand, in 1990, at the launch of the Education for All initiative. (Goal 3: "Improvement in learning achievement such that an agreed percentage of an appropriate age cohort - e.g. 80% of 14 year-olds - attains or surpasses a defined level of necessary learning achievement). Ten years later, at the World Education Forum in Dakar (2000), that goal was eliminated and learning was mentioned only in reference to young people and adults (Goal 3: "Ensuring that the learning needs of all young people and adults are met through equitable access to appropriate learning and life skills programmes"). That same year the Millennium Development Goals were approved; the two goals referred to education did not mention learning.

It is definitely time to move beyond quantitative goals of access and completion, and to incorporate learning at the core of all education goals. It is time to apply the terms 'universalization' or 'democratization' not just to enrollment and completion of a certain school level, but to learning. It is time to assume that the right to education includes not only the right to access formal schooling but also the right to learn.

"Global learning crisis"? - Blaming the victim

There was apparently consensus in choosing the term "global learning crisis". It is certainly global: the crisis affects not only poor but also rich countries. On the other hand, it is clear that acknowledging the learning crisis in the school system implies acknowledging the teaching crisis as well. Speaking of a learning crisis has the risk of placing the problem, as usual, on the side of the learners rather than on the system.

Illustration: Claudius Ceccon

Blaming the victim is daily practice in the school culture. But we know - or should know - that if children are not learning in schools it is not because they are stupid but because the school system - not only teachers individually -- is unable to teach them properly and the social system is unable to offer them adequate learning conditions in and out of school (family welbeing, affection, protection, nutrition, health, sleep, security, etc.).

Both the learning crisis and the teaching crisis are related to an obsolete and dysfunctional school system that needs major changes if we want to ensure learning, learning to learn, and learning to enjoy learning.

Teacher training appears typically as the main 'solution' to educational quality and to student learning. However, even if important, teacher training is not enough. There are other quality factors related to teachers (salaries, professionalism, respect and social appreciation, participation in educational policies and decisions, etc.) and other internal and external factors intervening in school success or failure.

When it comes to teaching and learning, let us not forget that:

(a) The "global learning crisis" affects not only 'developing countries' - focus of Education for All and other international education reports and debates - but also 'developed countries'. Concern and complaints about poor reading and writing skills among primary and high-school students are common and increasingly voiced in rich - OECD - countries.

(b) The "global learning crisis" affects not only students but teachers as well. Millions of school teachers receive inadequate and poor pre- and in-service training, where they learn nothing or what they learn is not relevant and useful for their professional practice and development. There is huge waste of money and time in teacher education and training that do not translate into meaningful teacher learning

(c) Students are blamed for not learning and teachers are blamed for not teaching (or for not teaching in ways that ensure desirable student learning). However, the teaching role is not exclusive of teachers. The whole school system has been designed and operates as a teaching system. And this teaching system - the way we know it - is not adequate for learning and for learners.

Illustration: Frato (Italy)

Even if teachers are trained, and even if they are well trained and paid, the learning crisis - including their own - is there. The label "global learning crisis" may activate the assessment and evaluation machinery, with its fierce competition, standardized tests, and rankings, rather than stimulate the long postponed and much needed teaching-learning revolution.

A Teacher's Monologue

(Texto en español: Monólogo)

If, as a teacher, they tell me that I cannot teach, thta I am not inspired by a vocation in teaching, who is to be held accountable: I, or those who - with al their knowledge and experience - accepted me and saw me move towards a career for which I am now told I am ill-equipped and incompatible.

If, as a teacher, I enjoy teaching, but am confronted with shortfalls others see within me, who should bear the liability: myself, or the institutions - with names, budgets, official seals and signatures - that certified my aptitude, accredited my studies, and furnished me with a diploma that decreed I was qualified to teach.

If, as a teacher, I am told that what I teach is obsolete, irrelevant for learners and long surpassed by new developments in science and technology, who is to be considered outdated: I, or those who design the curriculum, those who taught me what and how to teach, those who train me and propagate outmoded teaching and learning content, methodologies and approaches, often without consultation and lacking themselves essential knowledge on education policies and on school cultures.

If, as a teacher, I am accused of not facilitating learning, and am told that the results fall short of what should be, am I the only one who is at fault? Or should others, too, be held accountable, be required to share in the concern and in the solution: those who supervise and evaluate my work, those who are responsible for the continuing education of teachers and for teacher professionalization, those who are in charge of managing the school?

If I teach day after day, year after year, and they tell me that nothing I do or nothing that I have to give is enough  - not education, training, vocation, commitment, time and effort dedicated to teaching and to learning - where does the problem stem from? Does it lie in myself alone? Or should it be shared by those who restricted the opportunities for my own education, those who now deny me the possibility to continue learning, those who decided long ago that teaching was a profession for the poor and for the unambitious, deserving poor salaries and status, condemned to mediocrity and to limited access to books, specialized journals and the Internet, and yet expected to rejuvenate, each day, the mystique attributed to teaching and rarely to other professions.

Ladies and gentlemen: It is time to address the real issues and the real obstacles. Rather than part of the problem, I am part of the solution.

* Originally published in: Education News, No. 10, UNICEF Education Cluster, New York, November 1994. Also published by Education International in its journal, Vol. 2, N° 2-3. Brussels, 1996.


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